I’ve been a Washington Capitals fan since 1986. As such, I’m ready, with the coming of every spring, to have my obssession rewarded with a soul-crushing exit from the playoffs. This after all is a team that in 21 postseasons has reached the Stanley Cup finals exactly once (it didn’t go well) but blown a two-game series lead seven times (five times to the Penguins, three times up three games to one). This year though (perhaps pushing back against Punxsutawney Phil’s call for more winter), the Caps seem determined make their fans an early gift of springtime disappointment. They might not make the playoffs at all. This with a roster that was supposed to be deeper and more talented than the one that finished first in the East two seasons in a row. (And won their first seven games this year.)
Yes, they were without puck-moving defenseman Mike Green for most of the season. And, they’ve been without top center Nick Backstrom since a little Canadian rat named Rene Bourque elbowed him in the head back in January. (It’s telling that Backstrom, the team leader in points when he was concussed, held that honor for several weeks hence.) But neither injury can fully account for this cavalcade of ineptitude. Caps hockey this season has featured, in different combinations and sometimes all at once, mediocre goaltending, porous defense, an inability to score, miserable special teams play, and severe mental fragility. Again, this is largely the same team that lead its conference twice in two years, was fourth in the league defensively last year and first in offense by miles the year before that. (If you follow hockey at all, you know there should be grapefruit-size asterisks next to those plaudits; but we’re not getting into that now.)
Still, for a few more games at least, these crappy Caps are on the playoff bubble. They’re two points from the eighth and last playoff spot and only four out of first in the horrific Southleast. So they could, theoretically wind up not only in the playoffs but as a No. 3 seed with home ice in the first round (spoils awarded to even the crappiest of division winners). Such are the fantasies that cloud the minds of fans.
To wit, the Caps began last week with a should-win contest against the lowly New York Islanders. A lackluster effort found the boys in red down 2-0 in the game’s waning minutes. Winning, and not dropping another two points to the Southeast-leading Panthers, required a spectacular, improbable effort. And that’s what the Caps gave, tying the game in the last 20 seconds and then finishing off the hapless Isles in OT with a scorching wrist shot from underachieving $9 mil/year captain Alex Ovechkin. How would the team respond? Would this minor miracle spark a dramatic return to form in the last month of the season, just in time for the playoffs? I allowed myself to consider that possibility for the three days until the next game, which the Caps lost 5-0 to New Jersey. Then they dropped two more, including Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the basement-dwelling Carolina Hurricanes. They’re back at it tonight, facing a surging Tampa Bay Lightning, who with a win, could relegate the Caps to fourth place in what is probably the NHL’s worst division. I’ll be watching, because I’m a masochist.